A.C.T. presents “A Night with Janis Joplin”

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A sunnier Janis sings the Blues

A Night with Janis Joplin opened at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater this past week. Like all authorized biographies it presented a more acceptable version of the life of Janis Joplin.

In one of her short monologues on growing up in Texas, Janis, portrayed by Kacee Clanton, tells of an idyllic-sounding childhood. Like many kids she listened to the girl groups of the ’50s, like the Chantels. And she describes laundry day, when she and her younger siblings, Laura and Michael, cleaned house with their mother, singing and listening to the Broadway tunes their mother loved – My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Hello Dolly.

Hello Dolly debuted on Broadway in 1964. But by 1963 Joplin had hitchhiked to San Francisco with music promoter Chet Helms. It was Helms who connected this “chick” (Helms’ word for Janis in his 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival introduction) with the emerging rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. In 1965 Joplin returned briefly to Port Arthur to recover from a meth addiction. If she ever sang songs from Hello Dolly with her family, it was under a cloud of a darker experience, one driven at the very least by compulsion. She returned to San Francisco in 1966.

More accurately, the Janis of this cabaret-style production describes returning to the world of rock ’n’ roll as another kind of addiction, that of the performer for the rush of the audience’s love and devotion. Apart from the songs that made her so famous – “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Down on Me” – very little of her San Francisco world is presented. A few Avalon Ballroom–like graphics are projected in the background, but those lack the compelling quality of the original shows. And then there are lots of sequined bell bottoms. Sadly, the script does not reflect Joplin’s humor, irony or innocence.

Rather than focus on the musicians and music that were part of Joplin’s milieu, the performance concentrates on the singers that Joplin credits as her influences. A decision by the writer–director Randy Johnson, which provides the most interesting aspects of the play. Variously these women are portrayed and sing, allowing for a range of voices and styles.

The singers first appear as the Joplinaires, and then in interrupting interludes to a rather thin explanation of the Blues and its meaning. But what exceptional singers these women are. Ashley Támar Davis sings Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. Sylvia MacCalla sings Bessie Smith and Odetta. Tawny Dolley sings as Etta James and Sharon Catherine Brown is an anonymous Blues Singer, the Blues singer for all times. All four women sing as the Chantels. One fascinating aspect of the performance was to hear again how Joplin translated these singers’ songs into her own vocal style.

And of course there was Kacee Clanton who sang Joplin consistently and unrelentingly. Clanton has, in unguarded moments, a smoother, more liquid voice, but for the most part she kept to her presentation of Joplin’s rough and raspy, go-for-broke voice and delivery.

The excellent back-up band consisted of eight members, spanning the jazz, blues and rock spectrum with Mike Smith and Michael Lent as guitarists. Music Director Todd Olson played keyboards. Everyone rocked, and if you are harboring nostalgia for those golden Summer-of-Love, drug-soaked days of the ’60s then this performance is for you, San Francisco.

– Jaime Robles            


A Night with Janis Joplin continues at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through July 9. For information and tickets, visit

Photo: Kaycee Clanton as Janis Joplin. Photo by Kevin Berne.